The People’s Republic of China is the most populous and increasingly one of the richest and most powerful nations in the world and yet their cinematic heritage is something of an afterthought around the world. Hong Kong obviously has a long history of populist filmmaking and Taiwan has also had a thriving arthouse scene, but mainland China seems to be something of a cinematic wildcard. The reasons for this aren’t too hard to guess, the nation’s repressive censorship requirements certainly have something to do with it, but that can’t be the full answer. Iran is even more repressive but that hasn’t stopped them from having a major cinematic footprint. I think another big part of it is their shameful lack of film preservation which makes movies that are relatively modern very hard to find in acceptably watchable versions. That’s certainly a big part of why I’ve had difficulty getting a grip on Chinese cinema, and it’s something I’m trying to fix slowly and getting to know more about the country’s most famous filmmaker, Zhang Yimou, is certainly a good place to start. Yimou has gone through a number of different phases in his career. He started out as a leading figure among the “Fifth Generation” of Chinese filmmakers, who started something of a new wave during the early 90s by making movies like Raise the Red Lantern and Red Sorghum, then he started making large scale Wuxia epics like Hero and House of Flying Daggers (which were probably the films that landed him a gig as the director of the famous 2008 Beijing Olymics Opening Ceremony), and right now he seems to have settled into making mid-size movies about 20th Century Chinese history with the latest being the low key melodrama Coming Home (which is of no relation to the 1978 Hal Ashby movie).
The film is set in the 60s and 70s (though it’s vague about the exact years) and deals with the personal costs of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. As the film begins a professor named Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming) has been imprisoned for upwards of ten years in a re-education for holding subversive views. His wife Feng Wanyu (Gong Li) has been separated from him and his daughter Dandan (Zhang Huiwen), who was very young when he was arrested, doesn’t really know him and now aspires to become a ballet in a patriotic national troupe. One day the wife and daughter learn that Lu has escaped from his imprisonment and are warned that if he attempts to make contact with them they are to give him no quarter. Eventually he does make contact and the way they react to his homecoming will have pretty big ripples through the rest of their family history.
It’s not always easy to understand just how free Chinese filmmakers are to do what they want. I think Zhang Yimou’s Hero was pretty obviously compromised by propaganda requirements for example, but the restrictions don’t always seem to be consistent and they’re perhaps less strictly regulated when one isn’t making a huge expensive blockbuster. It’s also become quite apparent over the years that the censors there don’t seem to have much of a problem with filmmakers being critical of some of the less than glorious aspect of Chinese Communist Party’s past like The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. This film certainly views the Cultural Revolution as an extremely hurtful moment that ruined lives and left deep wounds but you’ll also notice that it goes out of its way to point out that this is in the past and makes the communist party look a lot more helpful and understanding in the years afterwards. Of course one could perhaps see some subtle message here about how the party isn’t perfect and how their misguided policies could have ramifications in the future, a point that may be rather personal to Yimou, who has recently fallen on the party’s bad side in his personal life for having broken the one-child policy.
Having said all that, I wouldn’t recommend anyone go to see Coming Home expecting it to be an overly political movie, at its heart it’s actually a bittersweet little melodrama. There are two distinct sections of the film separated by a time leap. The first third of the movie is excellent and could possibly stand alone as a great short film if one wanted it to with a fascinating family dynamic and a tragic ending of sorts. The rest of the film deals with the fallout of that event and is also quite good but requires the audience to play along with it and accept a somewhat improbable development. Light Spoilers in this second half Gong Li’s character has developed a sort of memory loss that prevents her from recognizing her beloved husband when he finally returns. I’d be willing to believe there’s some medical feasibility to this condition if someone presented me with a similar case from real life, but it mostly feels like a screenwriterly invention that one has to just go along with. From here the film takes on the form of a sort of realist fable as the husband does everything he can to break through to her and find a way to overcome the couple’s distance. There’s something profoundly sad about what’s happened to the family and the way that they have to try to come together and that’s probably worth accepting an oddball high concept.
The movie is certainly beautifully made. Yimou and cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao definitely give the film a really good look. Zhang Yimou seems to have used his clout and his track record to give this thing a much bigger budget than a low key drama like this would usually get and it apparently got released to IMAX screens in China. I noticed it had a much more dynamic sound mix than I expected it too and the period detail was not half bad. The cast is also amazing. Gong Li has been working with Zhang Yimou since day one and continues to be a major talent and Chen Daoming also brings an incredible pain and emotionality to his role as a man in a really sad situation. I wouldn’t call Coming Home a particularly extraordinary movie but it tells its story pretty well and does it with a kind of unabashed but not mawkish emotionality that we don’t really get from Hollywood anymore.
***1/2 out of Four